Bras are a woman’s supportive and (sometimes) annoying friend. They’re incredibly useful because they protect your breasts and keep them perky and in good shape. But sometimes, it can make you feel restricted. After a long day, nothing makes you feel better than removing your bra once you get home.
Nonetheless, the brassiere is a norm and a necessity for most women. You need it for support and you need it to make your overall outfit look great. Though there are women who love to free their breasts, wearing a bra is still more socially acceptable.
But the modern-day bra has only become popular and widely used starting the past century. So what were the women in the past wearing? Here’s what they did:
Women were braless in ancient times. They go bare-breasted under their tunics. But there is evidence that athletic women in ancient Greece wrapped a band of linen or wool across their breasts while playing sports. This is considered the first ever bra.
In ancient Rome, big, sagging breasts were considered unsightly (that opinion still lives up to now), so they wear breast bands to prevent them from sagging. This doesn’t provide as much support as the bras today, but it’s better than none.
The next major upgrade for women’s upper undergarment only appeared in the 1500s, which is the corset. Women in France and other parts of Europe worn corsets to curve their bodies into hourglass shapes. This keeps their waistlines small and their busts pushed up and out, almost to the point that the bosoms were falling out of their dresses. The French court saw corset as an indispensable tool to the beauty of the female figure. The fashion trend that time was for women in the aristocracy, elite and the middle-class to have small waists and pushed up breasts.
But this type of chest support comes with a painful price – corsets are made of busk (long piece of wood) or whalebone sewn into the casing. Sounds uncomfortable, doesn’t it? But this restricting contraption was used for the next four centuries.
In 1869, the first modern bra was born in France. Herminie Cadolle, a clothing designer, cut a corset into two separate parts. It had a top part supporting the breasts and the lower part serving as a corset for the waist. The top was called the soutien-gorge, and it is very similar to the bustier or longline bra. But technically, it’s still a corset, not a bra.
In 1893, a breast supporter was patented in the U.S. by Marie Tucek. It has two separate pockets for each breast mounted on a metal plate, supported by shoulder straps and fastened with hook-and-eye closures. This design is similar to the underwire brassieres today. But at that time, Tucek failed to market it successfully.
The 1900s to 1920s
In 1907, the word “brassiere” was first used in Vogue. The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911.
The modern-day bra was patented by a New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, or known as Careese Crosby. She created a more comfortable alternative to the bustier or the corset, with her backless brassiere made of two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon. It had no cups, but it was freeing. When the other socialites saw her dancing freely without being constrained by the corset, they asked her to make more of that bra. She, later on, sold her creations under the name Caresse.
During World War I, the shortage of metal and the growing presence of women in the workforce ended the age of the corsets. Since men were fighting in the war, women needed to work but corsets strained their movement.
When corsets were ditched, it ushered the popularity of androgynous looks, especially the flapper styles. By the 1920s, the trend was to wear bras to flatten the breasts. Dresses that time were cut for women with slim and boyish figures, so they have to wear bandeau-style bras to flatten their chests.
Obviously, that trend didn’t give well-endowed women any justice. In 1922, Russian immigrants Ida Rosenthal and her husband William formed a company that produced brassieres with “bust cups.” This helped with breast support, uplifting the chest rather than flattening it. This took off later on as we know it, but the bust-flattening style dominated haute couture through most of the Roaring Twenties.
The 1930s to 1950s
During the 1930s, the brassiere industry blossomed with the introduction of adjustable bands and eye hooks to the bras. This was also the time when the brassiere is eventually shortened to “bra.”
More importantly, it was the decade when cup sizes became a thing. In 1931, maternity clothing company S.H. Camp and Company released the first bra measurement size charts that use the letters A through D.
When World War II broke out, more women were employed in factories. The bullet/torpedo-shaped bra became popular because it is believed to offer added protection for women who worked in production lines.
But after the war, the bullet bras are used by more women to make it look that they had a bigger cup size. Curves and fuller figures are now preferred, as with the popularity of curvy Marilyn Monroe. She famously wore bullet bras under sweaters, and she’s one of the celebrities (along with Jane Russel and Lauren Bacall) who donned the “sweater girl” style. Pointed, military-inspired bras were also fashionable.
When Paris New look was introduced, designers created wired bras to remove the need for straps, making it perfect for evening gowns, dresses, and sportswear. In the 1950s, bra designers concentrated on making undergarments as glamorous as possible.
The 1960s to 1990s
The first push-up bra – the Wonderbra – was designed by Canadian lingerie company Canadelle in 1964. The Wonderbra had 54 design elements to support, lift and push the bustline while creating a deep plunge effect. This paved the way to Wonderbra being a sexy, romantic and fashionable lingerie brand.
The retro decade of the 70s brought us the first sports bra, which was called the “JogBra.” This time, jogging and other forms of exercise are getting more popular to women and created a demand for an athletic brassiere that is comfortable, yet brings more support to the woman’s breasts. The first Jogbra was created in 1977.
That same year, the first Victoria’s Secret opened in Palo Alto, California. Today, Victoria’s Secret has grown internationally and became one of the most famous and favorite lingerie brands of women everywhere.
When Madonna wore her pink cone bra designed by Jean Paul Gaultier on her Blonde Ambition Tour, it became a major fashion moment. This controversial concert outfit became iconic and show-stopping, which suited Madonna’s risqué and bold fashion choices, like wearing lingerie as outerwear. Of all her sexy outfits, this was the most memorable. In 2012, that cone bra was sold at an auction for $52,000.
A (literally) big development in bras during the 21st century is the addition of new bra sizes like L, KK and N, as the average bra size increased from 34 B to 36 DD.
The 2000s also brought more bra designs like strapless, one-strap, halter, convertible and the modern corset bra meant to be worn underneath all types of clothing styles. Common bra types today include full-coverage bras, plunge bras, balconette cup bras, and sports bras, which are acceptably worn as outerwear. Cups with memory foam that conforms to the shape of the breasts are also available. There are also adhesive/stick-on cups to keep breasts in shape and supported while wearing difficult dresses like low-cut, plunging and backless styles.
Today, the seamless bra cup became common, so bras are not very visible underneath. This type of bra can include contour bras, padded bras, and T-shirt bras. Also, colored and printed brassieres are more common everywhere, compared to the times before when bras almost always come in simple and neutral colors.
While it is common for us to see models and celebrities not wearing bras in public appearances to emphasize that wearing a bra is not a requirement, bras are still worn by a great majority of women around the world. Bras can give you the security you want, regardless of your attire. With a properly-fitting bra underneath to support you, you can easily feel confident and glamorous to rock your outfit.